UK and Sierra Leone

– in Westminster Hall at 12:28 pm on 10 May 2011.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Deputy Leader, Liberal Democrats 12:28, 10 May 2011

I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting me the opportunity to debate relations between the United Kingdom and Sierra Leone. I have been a Member of Parliament for more than a quarter of a century, and I have become a great fan of Sierra Leone over that time. I became a fan because many of my constituents and others who live in the London borough of Southwark come from Sierra Leone. I have come to know them well and work with them; I have seen them become involved in the local community, stand for public office and elected as local councillors; and I have seen one, Councillor Columba Blango, become mayor of Southwark.

I am a great fan of Sierra Leone, because I have had the opportunity to visit it on more than one occasion, most recently the year before last. I place on record my thanks to Ian Hughes, our high commissioner, who hosted that visit, and to Magali Tang, who works with me on Home Office, immigration and other matters. We were given a good opportunity to catch up on matters in general and to meet much of the community, but we went specifically to look at the challenges of deforestation that face the area around Freetown and of the climate change agenda.

I have become a great fan of Sierra Leone because I have seen how the country has bounced back from one of the most terrible civil wars that Africa has seen in recent times. It was a civil war in which the most terrible atrocities were committed. Many people were killed and many lost their families and their homes. Even those who survived were often left so badly injured that they were unable to be economically self-sufficient. Many were placed in homes in Freetown because they had had both their arms or legs chopped off. The most terrible things happened in that most terrible of civil wars.

With the help of the United Kingdom, the country has come through. There is huge respect in Sierra Leone for the UK Government because of their willingness to support a great Commonwealth friend. I have joined with many Sierra Leoneans in the past few days to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their independence from the United Kingdom. They were celebrating not because they had wanted to shake off their links with the United Kingdom, but because of their growing self-confidence. There was a great service in the Walworth Methodist church in Southwark, a celebration party in Camberwell and many other events. There was a diplomatic reception hosted by his excellency the high commissioner for Sierra Leone on 27 April.

It is a pleasure to welcome the Minister to this debate. I have just learned from him that he had the privilege of representing Her Majesty and the Government at the anniversary celebrations in Sierra Leone. He will no doubt regale us with an account of the optimism that he found in that lovely west African coastal country, which was once a member of the empire and is now a proud member of the Commonwealth. Let me also pay tribute to the high commissioner of Sierra Leone in the UK. He is fully engaged with his community, and is a hugely popular and respected figure, as he was when he was in public life and politics in Sierra Leone.

There is no intention in this debate to catch out the Minister or give him a hard time. I just want to set out some of the facts about Sierra Leone as it is today, and then share with the Chamber the issues on the agenda for the future. Our link with the country comes through not just history, respect and diplomatic interchange, but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development. I will come back to the way in which we help on a day-to-day basis.

Sierra Leone is a beautiful and peace-loving place with many natural characteristics and resources. It has a beautiful coastline that provides harbouring for ships from across west Africa, and the potential for oil exploration. None the less, it is one of the poorest countries in the world, and we need to remind ourselves of that, because with poverty comes great challenges. Sierra Leone has a population of about 6 million people, and more than 20 ethnic groups. In the civil war from 1991 to 2002, there were tens of thousands of deaths and the displacement of more than 2 million people—about a third of the population. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Governments under President Kabbah of the Sierra Leone People’s party and under President Ernest Bai Koroma of the All People’s Congress party since 2007 have been seeking not only to strengthen democracy but to ensure that the economy can grow so that it meets the needs of its people.

When I was talking to the high commissioner at one of the recent celebrations, he said that the most visible sign of economic progress is the improvement in infrastructure. That will be welcome not just to Sierra Leoneans but to many visitors. On my first visit, I had to go by road from Freetown to Bo and, as I told the high commissioner, it was the least comfortable road journey of my life because there were more potholes than road. I am talking about not little undulations in the road but serious holes. Sorting out the road surface, the road structure around the country from the capital to the provinces and the internal air flights is fundamentally important if people are to be able to travel for work or for social activity, to sell their wares or to exploit natural resources.

The list of Sierra Leone’s natural resources is not small or insignificant. It includes diamonds, titanium ore, bauxite, iron ore, gold and chromite. Unlike Zambia, most people in Sierra Leone do not work in mines. They work on the farms, scratching a living from agriculture, which brings me to the other important background fact. Like every other country, Sierra Leone has been challenged by climate change. A huge percentage of the population is under the age of 16. People have responded to the rapid growth in population by over-harvesting timber and taking away some of the forests, by expanding cattle-grazing, and with some slash-and-burn agriculture. That has been no good for the forests or the soil. Furthermore, the civil war has depleted many of the country’s natural resources, and there has been significant over-fishing.

The challenge is to ensure that the good order of nature is restored in Sierra Leone and that there is careful husbanding of natural resources. The country is concerned to ensure that any exploration for oil is conducted very carefully. It is keen to avoid the problems that Nigeria went through—huge exploitation, corruption and environmental disadvantage.

One encouraging sign is that refugees in surrounding countries are slowly returning. The increase in the population is not just due to the birth rate rising; people feel that it is now safe to come home. The increase puts huge pressure on the urban areas such as Freetown. Although it is mainly a rural community, some 30% of the people of Sierra Leone live in urban areas. The challenge is to find enough work for people, which is where the United Kingdom can be of help. One area in which we have started to do significant amounts of work is in building up the public services. I think that I am correct in saying that in the last full financial year, DFID spent just short of £45 million on Sierra Leone. The largest single item on that budget was money for better governance, to ensure that corruption was reduced and did not return and to support the presidential elections next year. The next largest area of support was health, and there were other financial commitments to social services and education.

The reason those financial commitments are so important is to be found if we look at the specific indicators of health and deprivation in Sierra Leone. For example, there are key indicators on health in the country in a report by the United Nations Development Programme. The report shows that 46% of the total population is undernourished; expenditure on public health in Sierra Leone as a percentage of GDP is only 1.4%, and the under-five mortality rate for every 1,000 live births is 194, so nearly 200 out of every 1,000 children who are live births—or nearly 20%—do not survive to the age of five. There are also education indicators in that report. The percentage of those of both sexes aged 15 and above who are literate is just over 40%; the expenditure on education is under 4% of GDP. The mean years of schooling for those who are currently adults has been just under three years, and the expected years of schooling for children is currently just over seven years. In addition, 81% of the population is in poverty and nearly two thirds of the population live on less than $1.25 a day. Those figures show the economic and social situation in Sierra Leone.

It is not surprising, therefore, that until recently Sierra Leone was at the bottom of the league in the UN development index. Although there has been some slight improvement in that respect since 2000, the graphs comparing Sierra Leone with sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the world show that Sierra Leone stayed at the bottom of the league. It is a great tribute to the Government and the people of Sierra Leone, and to our relations with that country, that in the last year—when the last UN development index was produced—there has been a significant and noticeable improvement in Sierra Leone’s place in the league table. It had been 169th in the world, but it has moved up. It may not be halfway up that table, but it has moved up to 158th. For Sierra Leone, that improvement is really important, and the country’s high commissioner leads me to believe that the next publication of the UN development index may well show that Sierra Leone has made further progress.

I want to flag up what seem to me, from my visits to Sierra Leone and my conversations with Sierra Leoneans, to be five specific issues on which I hope that the

Minister can give me positive encouragement, in addition to the general encouragement that I know he is capable of giving, and that is hugely well received in Sierra Leone.

First, we must continue to support the development of a decent public health service in Sierra Leone. On my last visit to the country, 18 months ago, I went to the maternity hospital in Freetown and I was told that there are two gynaecological consultants for the whole country. There is a desperate shortage of specialist doctors and specialist nurses. The challenge for the health service in Sierra Leone is not only to train Sierra Leoneans to become specialist doctors and specialist nurses but to ensure that they are not then lost to Sierra Leone as a result of their coming to this or another country and not going back. There is absolutely no problem with us helping in the training of Sierra Leoneans to become doctors, dentists, nurses, radiographers and consultants, but it is really important that people with those specialist skills do not become part of the diaspora, helping in countries such as the UK, but instead remain in Sierra Leone. One of the big challenges is to ensure that those people are in place in Sierra Leone, not only in Freetown but in the other towns and cities.

Secondly, we must continue the work in public health that has begun. In Sierra Leone, there is still a high risk of people dying or becoming seriously incapacitated because of disease. The vaccination and public health programmes—and, partly, the education programmes—as well as the actual delivery of vaccination and the like, are all hugely important. For example, pneumonia, malaria and other diseases can either kill people or reduce their capacity for survival and economic activity. That public health activity, in the rural areas as much as in the urban areas, must remain a priority in our practical links with Sierra Leone.

Thirdly, we must continue the good military and defence links that we have had with Sierra Leone. It is very important that the UK continues to enjoy the huge benefit to our reputation in Sierra Leone that results from our support for the country during the civil war and our help in bringing that civil war to an end. Of course it should not spend excessive amounts of money on military and defence—that would be absolutely the wrong thing to do—but if Sierra Leone is to remain proud and free, its military and law-and-order agencies, including the police, need the capacity to protect its independence and its national assets, such as its diamonds, from future incursions like the incursion that happened in the past from over the border with Liberia. In that respect, the continuing collaboration with and training of the military and, where appropriate, the police in Sierra Leone are very important.

Fourthly, we must continue the really good educational links between Britain and Sierra Leone. The Commonwealth has provided a wonderful opportunity for continuing links with further and higher education in Sierra Leone. Along with colleagues from both the other main parties in the UK, I have sought to ensure that Commonwealth scholarships are retained, and that we maximise the opportunities for people in Sierra Leone to study abroad, whether they are undergraduates or studying for a postgraduate degree, such as a master’s degree. It is important that we continue those educational links, because the exposure of young people from Sierra Leone to this country and of young people from this country to Sierra Leone can only benefit future generations in the two countries, promoting mutual understanding between the UK and Sierra Leone and economic progress in Sierra Leone.

Fifthly and lastly, it is of course vital that we continue to help improve the governance of Sierra Leone and continue to support the country’s Government, both in the country’s Parliament—by giving the Parliament and the country’s MPs the support that they need—and in regional and local government. The other day, a significant anti-corruption agreement was signed. Corruption has been the bane of much of African politics. However, Sierra Leone has been determined to try to tackle the issues of corruption. It has dealt with many of them well, but many challenges still remain. I hope that we can give the people of Sierra Leone all the support and encouragement that we can to ensure that the rule of law is understood and followed, and so that people who think they can exploit Sierra Leone do not get away with it and instead are brought to justice and pay the price for their actions.

I hope that this debate sends a clear signal to Sierra Leone about how much we value it. I think that the last debate that we had in this House on Sierra Leone was the one that took place at the time of the civil war, when things were very dark and grim indeed. The picture there is wholly different now. We encourage the people of Sierra Leone to ask when they need our support and to tell us when they do not need it, so that they can be independent. We also want to say to them how much we value the progress that they have made and the recovery that they have embarked on. They need to maintain economic growth, but above all, they need to keep the civil and civic peace that is such a wonderful development after the civil war in their country. Sierra Leone is a country of many faiths; it is predominantly Muslim, but there are many Christians and people of other faiths, and all of them live in harmony with each other.

We salute Sierra Leone on the 50th anniversary of its independence, and we thank it for its contribution to Africa, the Commonwealth, this country and the world. I hope that the Minister can say, on behalf of the Government, how much support we will continue to give to Sierra Leone and how much we value the precious links that have been established over the years between our two countries.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 12:48, 10 May 2011

I congratulate my right hon. Friend Simon Hughes on raising the issue of the relations between Britain and Sierra Leone, which is of great importance to his constituents. I understand that his constituency has one of the largest diaspora communities from Sierra Leone. He has worked tirelessly on behalf of that community. He said that he is a great fan of the country. The feeling is mutual in Sierra Leone, where he is hugely respected.

This debate is timely for two reasons. The first is that Sierra Leone has recently celebrated 50 years of independence from the UK. The second is that I myself have just returned from a four-day visit to the country to take part in those celebrations as the official representative of Her Majesty’s Government. I welcome this chance to discuss matters that are of interest to many Members. Although recent events in the middle east and north Africa, as well as in nearby Côte d’Ivoire, continue to demand the attention of my ministerial colleagues, it is important that we do not lose sight of developments elsewhere in the world, including developments elsewhere in the region.

Sierra Leone is on the cusp of a better and brighter future. Fifty years after attaining independence, 10 years after the end of a bitter and bloody civil war, nearly four years after the present Administration came into office and just over a year before a historic fourth post-war election, it is set to complete a difficult transition and to step forward into a brighter and better future for all Sierra Leoneans.

Sierra Leone is a rare success story in west Africa. The 10 years since the end of the civil war have seen slow but steady progress, including a functioning democracy at the service of its people, who have seen a rare peaceful handover of power from one party to another in a democratic election. There has been refurbishment and extension of the national infrastructure, which is so essential to the economy and to a functioning society and, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, the roads have improved immeasurably and are vital in ensuring that the rural economy can move forward. Progress has also included macro-economic stability at a difficult time in the global cycle and steady economic growth, with the prospect of a step change upwards when mineral exploitation plays its proper part in the development of the economy and the country.

The UK and the international community continue to support that progress, and we welcome Sierra Leoneans’ efforts to shoulder a greater burden themselves. We encourage them, their Government and their institutions to grasp confidently the reins of their own future. We also recognise that despite the remarkable progress in the past decade, Sierra Leone faces huge challenges.

However, as my right hon. Friend highlighted, although there is still a long way to go—there obviously is—progress is in the right direction in the league tables. That is why colleagues in this House, and indeed elsewhere, applaud the progress but also recognise the very significant challenges. It is also why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development and his Ministers prioritised Sierra Leone in the recent bilateral aid review, which will ensure that the country continues to receive much-needed UK aid.

As a friend of Africa and of Sierra Leone, I follow events in the country and the region very closely. As I have already mentioned, I was very pleased to be able to attend the recent independence day celebrations as the official representative of Her Majesty’s Government, and I found Sierra Leone to be a firm friend of the UK. The celebrations were truly authentic, and although they were held in a hot, humid stadium and other venues, the spirit of national celebration and the optimism for a bright future were there for all to see. The President made an excellent speech, calling on all Sierra Leoneans to put their past behind them, without blame, and to commit to learning the lessons of that past and to dedicating those lessons to working together to make a better country for their children and grandchildren. The President’s rhetoric was truly inspiring and uplifting.

As well as the 50th anniversary celebrations, my visit focused on prosperity, security, the UN and regional issues. I had an excellent meeting with the President, who thanked the UK for our consistent support since the end of the civil war 10 years ago. His country is a radically different place now, but he entirely appreciates that there is still more to do to heal the wounds of war, and we agreed that getting the economy right was a crucial part of that.

The UK can be proud of its contribution to helping Sierra Leone’s economy to grow. Since the end of the war, we have supported the economy through the judicious use of budget support, which has helped to assure macro-economic stability. As a result, Sierra Leone has seen an average annual growth of 6.4% since 2003, which is a big achievement by any standard. To ensure that that continues, we are using UK aid to support the development of the energy sector and to improve access to micro-finance and finance for new businesses, and, through our prosperity agenda, we are encouraging further investment. The successful London trade and investment conference in 2009 saw a fourfold increase in new foreign investment inquiries, which is incredibly encouraging. We will continue to work closely with the Sierra Leone Government and business to help the economy grow, generate wealth, create jobs and increase Government revenues, to enable the country to stand on its own feet.

One initiative that has great potential is the Salone business network, which was formed to support Sierra Leone’s efforts to raise its international profile and attract blue-chip companies. Sierra Leone’s resource wealth and natural beauty have the potential to transform the country, with its fertile soils that can become the basis for a successful and lucrative contribution to solving the food shortages that are pushing up prices around the world.

Minerals—iron ore, diamonds, gold, rutile, and potentially oil—could truly transform the economy of the country and the lives of its people. However, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, success cannot be assured, and careful thought and difficult decision making will be needed. Experience elsewhere demonstrates that economic development can have both positive and negative consequences—we have all seen and studied the resource curse of Africa.

To ensure that Sierra Leone reaps the benefits of agriculture, tourism and natural wealth, it is crucial to bear in mind the following: transparency, on the part of both companies and Governments to maintain credibility and ensure efficient bureaucratic process; equity, providing a fair return for the Government, the people and the companies investing their cash and knowledge; and competition, with companies exerting themselves to the utmost to ensure they are the most profitable and flexible, and pay the best wages, to attract the best workers. Similarly, to attract the best businesses and to ensure that Sierra Leone sees the full benefits of commercial development, the necessary institutions and processes must be in place. The UK is working with Sierra Leone to make that a reality.

My right hon. Friend made four additional key points. He mentioned health, and in particular maternal health. When I was in the country, I visited the excellent Princess Christian maternity hospital in Susan’s Bay. That was one of the high points of my visit because I had the chance to see for myself the work that the Department for International Development has done in putting in expertise on the ground.

I do not know the exact numbers of specialist doctors, nurses and gynaecologists, but I will get back to my right hon. Friend on that. What I can tell him is that the hospital is functioning really well and is saving lives by enabling a large number of Sierra Leonean women to have their children in a maternity hospital. That is encouraging and uplifting. I completely agree with my right hon. Friend about the crucial importance of extending the health service and medical treatment out into the rural areas, and DFID is certainly on the case. I also agree entirely about the crucial importance of building up capacity and progress in those areas. Significant progress has been made, but more can be done.

On military training, one of the abiding observations that I came away with was the huge gratitude on the part of the Government and the people of Sierra Leone for the UK’s intervention at the end of the civil war. It was a very well timed intervention, which enabled the progress through to democracy, and the rebel forces to be beaten. Since then, we have had the British training team in place, which has been transformed into the international military advisory and training team. The team is still led by Britain, and the vast majority of its officers and non-commissioned officers are from Britain. It is running a staff college there, which is a centre of excellence. I am keen to see the IMATT continue and develop original scope, training not just the military from countries in the region, but the police, building capacity and professionalism in the key security and police sectors.

This debate has provided an ideal opportunity for me to praise the work of the Sierra Leonean diaspora in the UK, many of whom live in my right hon. Friend’s constituency. Diaspora communities play a vital role in encouraging socio-economic recovery in their mother countries. Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials have had several meetings with the Sierra Leone Diaspora Network in recent years, and the excellent British high commissioner in Freetown, Mr Ian Hughes, joined my right hon. Friend in addressing a group of his Sierra Leonean constituents last year. It is important that we maintain those strong links with the diaspora community. Incidentally, I want to pay tribute to the hard work of Mr Ian Hughes and all his in-country team, who do an absolutely first-class job in supporting Sierra Leone as it continues its recovery and development.

I have seen first hand the excellent results that the DFID team has achieved on the ground. Sierra Leone used to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women to give birth in but, through judicious intervention and a really imaginative aid programme, that has changed. Sierra Leone has come a long way since the civil war, and with the recent instability in Côte d’Ivoire, it should be seen as an example of how a west African nation can move forward, heal divisions and rebuild itself. Sierra Leone is an extraordinary place, and I have a vision that in the future it will be a confident, independent and self-sufficient country, of which its people can be incredibly proud. We look forward to working with them over the next 50 years.